“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you…For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:3-4, 8)
This greeting of Paul’s – read aloud to a gathering of believers meeting in a home in Philippi – came to my mind as I reflected on the FSJ Online Gathering I attended in October. The same longing and affection expressed by Paul in his letter arose in me upon seeing Brother Curtis’ and Todd’s warm smiles and hearing their heartfelt expressions of love for all of us FSJ members, who appeared as tiny passport-sized photos on the screen. In the ancient world, a letter conveyed the personal presence of the one who sent it; and so too I certainly felt Curtis’ and Todd’s presence through this electronic medium.
“You bring Jesus to us,” declared Curtis, as he shared the Brothers’ gratitude for our participation that night and for all of our prayers, notes, and other means of support during this time of physical separation. Through his words, I was reminded that the Society of Saint John the Evangelist is our Monastery, and I realized that the Brothers need me as much as I need them to create God’s beloved community.
The first half hour, Curtis and Todd shared some of their own reflections, prayers, and practices during the pandemic. Curtis expressed eloquently what so many of us are feeling – ”a loss of our sense of belonging.” As he spoke about vocation and our own individual callings, I experienced afresh a reconnection to that fundamental question that I have heard after spending time on retreat at the Monastery: “Where is God in this?” It resonated for me when Todd spoke of experiencing disorientation, and how the flexibility of the SSJE Rule of Life allowed him to “ride the waves” and adjust to a different rhythm of life.
During the second half of our time together, Curtis and Todd took turns answering questions from us through Zoom’s chat function. They replied to our questions about Br. David Allen with full humanity, describing David’s last days and the celebration of the Eucharist of the Resurrection for him in the Chapel. What a gift of connection to hear of their frustration at not being able to visit him in his assisted living facility, their grief at his death, and their loving gratitude for his life, witness, and friendship. The online gathering offered an occasion for us to mourn this loss together and to recognize the great losses that surround us. This pandemic has broken open all our hearts to the suffering both of loved ones nearby and of our neighbors around the globe.
In the questions submitted by my fellow FSJ members, I heard the same human longing for the divine that I have experienced listening to fellow retreatants at the Monastery. Our questions were about our physical separation from the world, responses to the pandemic, rest, and spiritual practices. Even in this digital medium, the Brothers had wisdom to share: I was buoyed by Todd’s description of the increased importance of intercessory prayer as “stepping into that unceasing voice of praise and prayer that goes on before the throne.”
This event, born out of the necessity of the pandemic, actually connects in surprising ways to SSJE’s mission and witness. The SSJE website describes the mission of the Society in this way: “Rooted in the ancient monastic traditions of prayer and community life, and critically engaged with contemporary culture, we seek to know and share an authentic experience of God’s love and mercy.” I experienced all of this in FSJ gathering, and its richness continues to feed my prayers for the Brothers and the Fellowship.